“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,” said the Elizabethan man of letter Francis Bacon. Reading was, in fact, a social experience, a public act, in the realms of academia, ecclesia, and civil service in the early 16th century England before the Reformation era, which was still reminiscent of medieval traits in general modus viendi. Reading was an expensive activity of the literate accessible to Greek and Latin texts, and books were not so much a necessity as a luxury. So much so that going to a theater was cheaper than buying a book. This Elizabethan culture of books and reading was the topic of the delightfully informative podcast interview “Books and Reading in Shakespeare” with Stuart Kells and Jason Scott-Warren, which I came upon while I was reading a book about the culture of Elizabethan England with a mental exclamation: Geronimo!
Shakespeare used historical contents, contemporary literature, and translations of classical continental source texts to use them as his poetic imitations. The existence of Shakespeare’s library is always elusively ethereal, but the poetic dramatist was himself a walking library; carrying all of the source texts in his head and drawing on a wealth of the information, he created a polyphonic work that elegantly and wittily interwove multiple strands. With Shakespeare as an illustrative example of personalizing books to use them as source texts to create his own works, we see the Elizabethan England changing from the elitist medieval academic institution to the popular readers’ club with members from various social strata wallowing in simple pleasure of reading books to their liking. This cultural character of the era is marked by individualism; that the responsibility for your achievement is attributed to yourself was the ethos. This growing self-confidence in awareness of individualism permeated writing as well as reading by personalizing the knowledge of others to make it your own.
The increasing availability of books in English language resulting from the Reformation encouraged people to teach themselves to read, including women. A variety of subjects, ranging from recipes for meals to Scriptures, in English gave access to those who were often excluded from a feast of knowledge enjoyed by a privileged few, and now more people could share the joy of being knowledgeable and creative thanks to the democratization of reading in general as a result of the mass production of books in the vernacular language that captured the shift to a more literary culture in comparison to the continental counterparts.
In short, reading practice in Elizabethan England reflects social changes in the religious climate that permeated people’s literary interests: the Bible became the ultimate self-help book as well as philosophy and literature that made readers inquisitive and intelligent by trying to ascertain the meanings of the Gospel, which was the office of the clerics before the reformation. Now the time changed, and people read the Bible directly, using their own faculty of comprehension and imaginativeness. Consequently, the democratization of subjects and accessibility of books gave the power of knowledge to people to enter the truth of the world and the beyond. Blimey. For reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
In the case of life imitating art, you tend to find meanings of events in life, to liken them to values of adversity in life, and to sublimate them to the divine auguries of purposeful human existence. In fact, this existential approach to the causality of certain human behaviors and characteristics can help you to understand whys and wherefores of the way people are and thus can even disarm all hostility towards strangers without prejudice. Such is the case of Adam Smith, the father of modern idea of Capitalism, author of “The Wealth of Nations” whose such proverbial reputation had piqued me no more than as a boring illustrative curriculum vitae of just another stuffy intellectual with privileged educational and social backgrounds until I read Stuart Kells’s article about the Real Adam Smith whom I might never have known.
Adam Smith, a posthumous son of a successful lawyer and customs official, was a rather melancholic, lonely, but humane thinker who liked to spend time with himself alone but also kept his foot in reality by observing everyday people’s lives and considering them to employ in contextualizing ills of society as a result of ineffective rules of law failing to protect the welfare of subjects. Smith’s brilliance shines on the simple and lucid illustrations of his thinking in common language that the literate and the illiterate could understand. He was a soul of the wit distinguished from his peers and progenitors favoring abstruse expressions of bombastic words pedantic of their academic learning.
Kells enlightens us that this humane trait in Smith can be originated from the traumatic experience of being kidnapped aged four at the home of his Scottish maternal uncle allegedly by a set of vagrants called ‘Tinkers’ or a party of Gypsies, the Wandering Egyptians. Although who the real culprit of this kidnapping is still a mystery to this day, what the event affected the tender mind was all over but the shouting. It was Smith’s first interaction with the world outside the safety of class, the innocence of childhood, and the security of the family. Already fatherless, the very young Smith must have felt powerless, hopeless, and homeless at the hands of his kidnappers. And this melancholy spell cast upon him became his curse and bliss as it made him look into the pains of other people and meditate on the causes and effects thereof by sympathizing with their sorrows and emphasizing with the sorrowful.
The kidnapping incident of Adam Smith read like a piece of sensational news to me, a kind of new awakening, the equivalent of modern-day news that a bestseller writer or a prize-winning writer hails from a poor family without expensive private high education. And it makes you think about what makes a person become who he or she is and appreciate the person’s values that overcome adversity. In this respect, Adam Smith is in league with Charles Dickens, who turned his suffering into works of art. It’s a triumph of the human spirit over the travesty of life. All in all, thanks to Kells’s telltale article about the wondrous event, I have abandoned my prejudice against Smith as a cold, stiff upper lipped economist and warmed to his humane side. Maybe I might even read “The Wealth of Nations” into the bargain.
The Great Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt might have been destroyed eons ago, but public libraries in every continent across the seven seas are going strong both as municipal assets and cultural repositories. Libraries are no longer elite academic institutes for the esoteric religious and the moneyed echelons of society whetting their intellectual vanity and superiority. The democratization of libraries as a public institution of shared and exchanged knowledge has made it possible for every class to access the symbolic fortresses of universe knowledge.
According to Stuart Kells, author of The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders and Shakespeare’s Library, libraries are “civic infrastructure,” which functions as pathways to literacy and social engagement where an exchange of information and propagation of knowledge occur voluntarily. In fact, a library is something of a public educational enterprise without expensive tuition, which provides various kinds of educational programs for all ages and all classes and of administrative services (e.g., passport service). That is why a government should fund its public libraries to encourage and fortify communal integrations and progresses instead of grandstanding on its discordant political vitriols to manipulate the number of constituents.
People might deem the future of public libraries to be rather bleak because of the advent of electronic books and online libraries. Yet, as time has been changed, so have libraries with modern resources, catering to the needs and interests of today’s library users. Public libraries have become democratic forums of learning and exchanging knowledge and information. They are vibrant cultural atriums in which the abstract and the physical become wondrously and liberally consummated. For this reason, I think that the future of public libraries is reasonably auspicious.
Author’s Note: This is my thought on a new radio interview with Stuart Kells on the future of public libraries. The subject is universal beyond Australia. Readers are encouraged to listen to the interview and to visit their local libraries.
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